Leiter & Philosophy: A Surely Much Too Early Post-Mortem

September 25, 2014
September 25, 2014 John Drabinski

Leiter & Philosophy: A Surely Much Too Early Post-Mortem

Some thoughts that are something like an entirely too early post-mortem on professional philosophy’s great harasser: Brian Leiter. Thanks to Leigh Johnson for playing the role of collector of the major pieces out about Leiter and, hopefully, his final stumble and fall. This recent stuff about him – sending harassing emails meant to intimidate – should be no surprise. No surprise at all. He’s been at it a long time. Perhaps it’s worth stopping and reflecting on what it says about philosophy as a profession.

Leiter is famous, really, only for his “ranking” of philosophy graduate programs. I put “ranking” between quotation marks because what he does is so much more complex than, as he imagines it (in a self-indulgent fantasy), simply offering a service to undergraduates. That said, it’s a lot of work, this thing he does. But I don’t think he needs to be commended on those terms. Sometimes, and this is one of those cases, the harm that one does so exceeds the supposed virtue of “hard work” that commendation seems almost an affront to the targets (maybe we can say victims, but I don’t want to speak that strongly for them) of his various obsessions and tirades.

The intellectual geography of professional philosophy in the United States is simple: Anglo-American philosophy runs everything, at every level, with only the most random and occasional exceptions. You can say something very strange about philosophy in this country: it hasn’t even yet gone through a Eurocentric phase (!) and has the race and gender politics to match that stunted growth. European philosophy, studied as a tradition (so not just a figure here and there), is relegated to marginal schools in the U.S., evidenced by the fact that one cannot study that tradition in any depth in an Ivy League philosophy department. Nor can you at many of the Ivy-compatriots like Stanford, Berkeley, Michigan, and so on.

It should be no surprise, then, that Leiter’s rankings were really always all about Anglo-American philosophy departments. Now that he’s probably going to lose control over those rankings, there is a chance to reevaluate all that, but I doubt it will be much different in terms of emphasis, categorization (apparently European philosophy doesn’t do metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics), and result. I think this needs to be said: these rankings, with their unself-conscious exclusion of any variety of non-Anglo-American traditions, amount to little more than bragging about resource and reputation privilege – privilege being that thing you have without effort, just because, in this case, your school’s name carries with it the suggestion of seriousness and greatness. And money.

I’ll give this to Leiter: he was at least honest about such privilege. His twenty year polemic against “party-line” European philosophers was as epic as it was disgusting. This piece from the New School’s philosophy department blog is instructive. Whatever one thinks of Simon’s work (I like it, generally), Critchley is a serious guy with real ideas. It is possible to disagree without destroying. I believe that.

Or his attempt to destroy Linda Alcoff’s character and reputation because she dared assume a leadership role in the American Philosophical Association (this is a particularly shameful part of Leiter’s harassment).

Or his harassment of a number of women in blog comments and over email.

Or his obsession with a fucking book review he didn’t like!

Or, and this one didn’t get much attention, his shrugging off of arguments for diversification of the discipline as conceding to “neoliberalism,” “the student as consumer,” and “mere identity politics” (as if the all-white canon isn’t it’s own identity politics).

I don’t list out all of this just to shame Leiter once again – though he deserves every word and every bit of shaming that comes to him, that’s just true – but to instead put the question to the larger profession: why has this person not only gone largely uncontested, but been actively supported and encouraged, when his harassing and intimidation is and has always been entirely public?

This question is important to ask at any time, but especially now after the Colin McGinn case, the Peter Ludlow (whom Leiter largely defended) example at Northwestern, and then the two genuinely gruesome cases at University of Colorado (sexual harassment and misogynistic retaliation). These cases put the profession under the microscope. Rightly so. It has shown how comfortable philosophers have been with harassment for a long, long time (no surprise to women, in these cases, as the blogosphere, social media, and everyday conversations have made clear).

Why has this profession ignored Brian Leiter’s harassing and intimidation for so long? 

I’ll leave that as an open question, with only this comment (I’d love to have other people comment on the question in the Comments section below). The profession of philosophy in the United States has always been a version of FoxNews when it comes to diverse views. That is, the response to difference – yes, we are in the absurd position where German and French philosophy counts as “difference” – has always been to destroy what is other through ridicule, but also, in the Gourmet Report, through doing all that can be done to drag down the careers of those who study the German and French traditions (and other traditions, though with less venom). It’s imperial and cruel. Leiter has always been very open about his cruel imperialism. When I wonder how all these people could collaborate with him for so long, knowing plenty about his misogyny and harassment, the best answer I come up with is just that: he embodies something about our professional ethos as FoxNews-style attack. Destroy difference. God forbid someone like Simon Critchley’s work!

That leads to the question in front of a lot of people right now, namely, whether or not to continue with “ranking” philosophy departments. I think there are reasonable arguments to be made for – Eric Schliesser gives one here – and against – Ed Kazarian gives a sketch of one here. Let me voice a severe and real concern: I wonder how a new board of Anglo-American philosopher rankers will produce less hostile, destructive results. After all, it took two decades for anyone to step in and say something about Leiter’s hateful bullshit. That means the whole environment, the whole atmosphere, is already poisoned and poisonous – how else to explain the happy encouragement of Brian Leiter for the past two decades? Alongside the discussion of whether or not to go forward with the Gourmet Report, there should be a real question of whether or not this climate – a climate that made it possible for Brian Leiter to flourish, not just survive – can sustain anything like fair, considered, and helpful reflection on graduate study. If the project is to be anything other than a reiteration of privilege and resource bragging, then it has to be radically reconceived. I mean, pulled up by its roots and aimed, for the first time, at transforming the atmosphere of the profession, not reproducing it. What sorts of collaboration are necessary for that transformation? I’d say that such collaboration is all but unprecedented.

It’s probably clear that my all-too-early post-mortem on the rank and ranking public career of Brian Leiter suggests no, not these people, not under these conditions, not with this track-record of accommodation. Since the Gourmet Report will likely live to see another day, I do hope I’m wrong. I’m hoping that the new directors get that distance from Leiter, not just as an individual, but as an embodiment of an old institution whose cruelty is now out in the open.


, , , ,

Comments (23)

  1. SK

    Thank you. Frankly I approach any [well established] philosopher who has not signed Carrie’s statement of support with deep suspicion. I think it is an issue of fundamental importance to the profession. Had I fully understood the climate I would face as a woman two years ago I would have decided against a PhD. You touch upon Leiter’s disdain for certain ‘continental’ philosophers he is equally dismissive of dismissve of other scholars in the humanities. An embarrassment.

    • It’s been amazing to me to see his contempt for English and Comparative Literature departments. Why the hostility? Why such elaborate, impassioned thoughts when you barely, if at all, read in the field? We can speculate about that stuff and, honestly, I think some armchair psychoanalysis would be pretty accurate (coincidence that he’s venomous about fields that treat women and non-white authors/traditions/ideas in detail? Perhaps not).

      For me, what I “like” (i.e., what I find demoralizing but important) about your comment is that tolerance of Leiter’s public shitting on people clearly has a larger effect. To say “I would have decided against the PhD” is absolutely terrible, but who could blame a person for having that thought? That’s why I wanted to post something about atmosphere and how tolerance of – or, really, support for, because Leiter has truly flourished – his disturbing harassment patterns makes the character of that atmosphere evident and clear.

      Not sure how this moment can mean something better for philosophy as a profession. But folks who have organized to depose Leiter – and hopefully intervene at the level of Leiter-as-public-commentator – need to see that this is a rare moment. And be ambitious about it.

  2. Great post, John. One quibble, though: Leiter isn’t simply against French and German philosophy and those who study those traditions. Rather, he’s against those individuals (Critchley foremost among them) who don’t work on figures in the ‘right’ way. The ‘right’ way seems to be his way, i.e. one rechristens Nietzsche and various other figures as Anglo-American philosophers in order to avoid the ill-defined sin of ‘party-line Continental thinking.’ This is more insidious, b/c when people object to these particular attacks against people like Critichley and ‘the SPEP crowd,” he can simply say, “Who me? But I do Continental philosophy too! I just do it correctly.”

    • Exactly. And that’s the FoxNews effect, no? Demonize and destroy individuals as a way of discrediting ideas.

      I was trying to get at that with the language of “European tradition,” in which one studies a figure as part of a long intellectual history, rather than, as is the prerogative (and fine by me, generally speaking) of Anglo-American philosophizing, simply extracting “the best argument” from a given texts. I think the term “scholar” is linked to this, where scholarly treatments do the history of ideas work, the hermeneutic exercises, and so on, rather than reconstructing texts as arguments cast in a contemporary tone and format.

      Again, the latter is a legitimate way of doing not only philosophy, but any kind of reading of texts. The problem is when it becomes an ideological position used to tear-down individuals … and discredit institutions and long-standing habits of reading, interpreting, and building on traditions. (See the case of Simon mentioned in the original post.)

    • Catherine Kemp

      Perhaps some context is helpful here. As is well-known, Brian wrote a dissertation on Nietzche at the University of Michigan in the 90s and he brought philosophy to law faculties in California and Texas in the same decade (the Yale stint aside). In both contexts he was working, surely, in an underrepresented sub-field for that context, with most colleagues generally unfamiliar with his subject matters. He was writing papers on Heidegger, objectivity, and legal indeterminacy when I knew him in Texas, at the law school. Legal theory was going through a milder version of literary theory’s upheaval over postmodernism (as they understood it, variously), with legal positivism à la Raz and Coleman the primary *philosophical* counterweight. When I first encountered the “Gourmet Report in 1995, as a photocopy, in Courier, handed to me by its author, I found my PhD-granting institution listed in the “Continental Underground”. In the ensuing discussion it emerged that the the classification, along with the we-do-it-better claim, was no casual addendum to the “Report”.

      At the time I formed an impression–I put it no higher than that–that Brian (1) had carved out a vantage of relative safety for his own work inside a traditional Anglo-American analytic department, (2) distinguished it by favorable comparison with that done at institutions outside the mainstream, (3) opened a franchise in the defense of legal positivism with the ostensible credibility of someone working on the very figures championed by the postmodern tradition, and then (4) turned around to draw a picture of the philosophical world in which these distinctions and valuations made sense, all from the institutional vantage of a law faculty, (5th) to the glory of positivism and its exponents. My memory of the early years of the PGR, before it became useful to enough people and departments and entered the broader prestige market, is that there were slight idiosyncrasies of valuation and ranking that reflected that picture and its autobiographical origins as well as aspirations. Others may remember it differently, of course.

      Which is to say, in effect and with some trepidation for the consequences, that this was always personal as well as professional, though far from simple (I think the ‘Fox’ effect, John, is more side-effect than substance). I vehemently disagreed with Brian over the rankings, the reification of the historical marginalization of classical American and European scholars and departments, and especially over the we-do-it-better claim. (This, even as I had my own reservations about the too-familiar provinciality of some of the work done in his “Continental Underground” and its deleterious effects on those departments). In the same year, his first and my last, I and another philosophy PhD in the same law school class at Texas toasted Brian after he returned from defending his dissertation. He, in turn, was genial and *very* supportive when I was going on the philosophy job market for the first time that fall. He kept his cool at an APA meeting when I introduced him to a close friend who argued forcefully and at length (more than an hour) against the PGR’s methodological claims. Over the years I have read the blog with alternating exasperation (at the familiar prejudices and their limitations), gratitude (at the calling-out of bad behavior in academia esp. in philosophy, including new and improved corruption and mediocrity at the “Underground” schools), and increasing distress (at the more recent, untenable, and at times appalling, lashings-out). Throughout I wished we could, as a profession, overcome the tendencies to provinciality–of tradition, institution, race, sex/identity, ability, rank, employment status-that seem endemic to the culture no matter particular persuasions. The “Underground” suffers terribly from the lack of sunlight; that Brian has aided, even as he has called out, those growths, is something that warrants thinking on as we go through this.

      One would wish there had been a gentler, more sociable way of transforming the Leiter franchise into something that preserved its usefulness (philosophy newsfeed and information clearinghouse, for example) and started to unwind its harmful effect on the profession, a way less costly in personal terms to its owner as well as to the people injured along the way.

      • Interesting anecdotes and characterization. As a graduate of the most abject of Leiter-schools (Memphis in the 90s), I of course remember the emerging report stuff differently and with less sympathy.

        Dana’s remarks below are really important, I think. Leiter has done something very troubling, and I don’t mean just his racism and misogyny (not sure how else to characterize his venomous attacks on Alcoff and others). He has reshaped the profession in such a way that by and large people feel the need to rank. That somehow this is just how we do things. We can’t seem to go back as a profession, and that bothers me.

        The perhaps unintentional collaboration with the quantification of the university needs to be taken seriously. Dana has opened my eyes to that aspect of his legacy.

        Let me be totally honest about my own feelings: I don’t have particular sympathy for Brian’s plight here, and maybe that shines a not-so-great light on me. But I would defend myself in that and say that his misogyny and harassment warrant withdrawal of sympathy. Since I don’t have fond memories of him as a person, that’s a lot easier to do. I get that. Like most folks (especially those targeted by his attacks and ridicule), my sense of him is electronic. If he is in fact a kind and generous person outside of the internet – and you’re one of many saying just that, so I presume it’s completely true – then this must be a really humiliating, tortuous moment. Or maybe he’s digging in his heels and sending out nasty emails to people (I received one a few days ago). It will be interesting to see if this wakes him up and a new Brian Leiter emerges. It really has been a terrible two weeks for him, whether you think he’s a bit misunderstood (you’re not just saying that, I know) or getting what’s due.

        If you ask me, for the rankings to be anything other than what I call resource and privilege bragging, the committee would have to completely dissolve Anglo-American philosophy’s hegemony and include folks from the full range of philosophical traditions, as well as folks from all sorts of institutions (grad degree and employment). I’d love to be wrong, but that doesn’t seem a good bet!

        • Catherine Kemp

          I agree, John, about the rankings industry both in and outside the discipline, and I think Dana is spot on about philosophy’s part in the general push for quantifiability in higher ed.

          My efforts at subtlety I think obscured the point of my observations about the Report’s early days: I meant to suggest that Brian’s interests and those of the people and departments who have benefitted from his rankings have coincided over a number of years but are not the same. I say this to throw some light on the current discussion of ‘what to do’ with the PGR, an easy problem both for critics of rankings and for people and programs re-marginalized by Brian’s version, but an urgent policy question for people invested in the world he helped create and sustain or in some aspect of it. I shared the historical impressions in order (1) to highlight the divide in interests between Brian and the people who are currently trying to salvage the rankings and (2) to suggest, not very coherently, that a simple rejection of Brian as owner-operator leaves partly unaddressed that enabling beneficiary culture that you and others here lament.

          I see this as a moment in which there may be space to see how very bad it is for everyone in the discipline to continue with provincialism of any kind. This is why I can’t bring myself either to sign the September Statement, supporting a PGR without Brian (while hoping that the effort pays off in breaking the lock the PGR has on departments and deans), or to see every one of his victims as a saint and the worlds they inhabit as essentially good, because he has declared them bad. I posted my comment on your blog because I come from the same world you do, and I wanted to add a complication for your readers to the very natural visceral response that scholars of European and classical American philosophy (which last Brian didn’t even deign to mention in the Report for several years) have to this development.

          Bottom line: let the divide in interest between Brian and his beneficiaries emerge on its own–don’t reunite them by demonizing them all–and watch for opportunities, as Dana has, to make broader constructive and inclusive observations that help the profession turn a corner here.

  3. John, I think your post moves the discussions in the best direction. The facebook posts and blog-posts that focus on issues of bullying and apologies for the most part depoliticize and distort what has been going on for years. This “recent” situation isn’t new for many of us. Many of the signatories to the Statement of Concern themselves have ignored what both the Leiter Reports blog and the PGR have inflicted upon many of us (for years). In particular, I want to draw attention to the issue of ableism. For years, Leiter has routinely referred to other philosophers, politicians, authors, and so on, as (among other things) “lunatics,” “idiots,” “crazy,” “imbeciles,” and “morons” in order to disparage them. (See, for instance, a post entitled “10th Anniversary of the Blog” in which Leiter explains that one element of his modus operandi on the blog has been “to call morons morons.”) This is blatantly ableist language and contributes to and reproduces a climate in the discipline that sends a very clear message to disabled philosophers: “you are not welcome here and do not belong here.” Indeed, no blog for philosophers has done more to contribute to the hostile climate that disabled philosophers confront than the Leiter Reports. I have seen many students and other scholars mimic and reiterate these expressions on that blog. I made (roughly) this criticism of his blog in my introduction to a special issue of _Disability Studies Quarterly, whose theme was “Improving Feminist Philosophy by Taking Account of Disability.” After the piece in which I called him on his ableism was published, he stopped doing it; he actually stopped doing it, for the most part, though he tried unsuccessfully to cast aspersion on me. Those interested in reading the criticism I refer to above can go to the article and search for endnote 3: https://www.academia.edu/5812065/Introducing_Feminist_Philosophy_of_Disability

  4. A good way to make progress with the question of whether and how there should be rankings is to ask: How is it that other disciplines do without them? What factors within institutional philosophy favored the institutionalization and publication of such rankings, and what perpetuates today’s attachment to them — as opposed to how practitioners of other disciplines advise students about good options for continuing their studies?

    It’s also noteworthy that in favoring rankings, Philosophy was ahead of other disciplines in responding (and maybe even helping to produce) the university’s ever-growing demand for quantifiable values, and interest in putting numbers (rather than qualitative criteria) to use.

    • I think this is an exceptionally important comment. Leiter’s effect is to have normalized the strange practice of ranking – telling people in other disciplines about this produces confusion-face, almost without fail – and now we’re faced with a scenario in which major figures in the discipline are beginning with the assumption that we must rank, and how can we do it without Brian. No one in that group of philosophers seems to be stopping and saying “no, it’s time to end this.”

      I don’t know why I’ve never thought of this second part, about how Leiter vanguarded the notion of quantifying the profession for the sake of administrators. I’ve been thinking about that a lot since you posted.

  5. Peter Ban

    I think, the professional elite has trouble taking serious an opposition, for whom “imperial and cruel” are meant as more defaming (or should we go with “defacing”?) than “plainly wrong”. Since the beginning of statefunded academical philosophy, this imperialism and cruelty (schoolformation) has been predominant. Look for it in your biographies of Derrida or Habermas no less than in the biographies of Kant and Hegel. Just saying.

    • I don’t follow your comment exactly. Are you saying that the characterization of what happens in the profession as “imperial and cruel” discredits “an opposition”? I’m comfortable with that language. It says this: Anglo-American philosophy imposes a standard for what counts as philosophy (that’s imperial) and exacts a serious price for those who practice something different in terms of diminished job possibilities, ridicule in professional and casual contexts, publication constriction, fellowship access, and so on (that’s cruel).

      Please explain how this post or anything that follows is “defaming.” Leiter’s more hilarious legacy (it’s genuinely funny) is his embodiment of the caricature of law-guy bleating about defaming this, per se that. What I have here is critique and spelled out in some detail.

      On the second point: I am sure it has happened elsewhere. But in this country, when you look at other humanities disciplines, philosophy’s effect has been unique: philosophy is largely cut off from other humanities work and, unlike other disciplines, does not engage with questions of race, nation, empire, colonialism, violence, etc. Rather than bios of Derrida, I think of how English departments have responded to questions of difference and I find a much better model right across the hall (not ideal, but a serious ENG department does work in Af-Am lit, postcolonial studies, and so on).

      • Peter Ban

        Calling morons morons is fine, and Leiter might well be an excellent specimen of that breed; I have no problems with the wording of your critique, and probably would agree wholeheartedly with your characteristic, had I more insight in the matter. But changes in philosophy, and more specifically in the milieus of academic philosophy, have traditionally taken place through the shift from one generation to the next, – to whom the former was wrong, and everybody else was wrong, too. It is not uncommon, is what I’m saying. And it might even be the (unfair, admittedly) breeding condition for any philosophy, that it hegemoneously spread its wings in an air of selfrighteousness.

        Now, isn’t there a paradox in all that? Sure. But one, that it takes a generation to unravel: these guys actually believe themselves to be in the right. As do people from the opposition. – That’s a dilemma well known to philosophers. It is as well known as the fact, that you only settle for diversity, – “agree to respectfully disagree”, – with those, with whom you fundamentally agree for the most part. That’s another reason why proving somebody wrong cannot be replaced by their defamation (I hold to that word). – Now, people from the department of english lit don’t have to disagree on what is true, and the diversity in that field (which really is worldwide in lit. dept.s) would probably have to face the same problem of monopoly, if someone should get the crazy idea, that only one kind of literature be interesting. As engaged as they might be in questions of truth and of being right in those departments, that’s not as defining for that profession as it is for that of philosophy.

        I have all this from Hegel, and might be just as defaitist as he was; it would be my honour, you don’t have to agree.

        • I think I’d disagree with you about the question of “questions of truth.” The passions about “real history” and “real literature” and the like have been pretty intense, as evidenced by all those who pioneered women’s lit or minority lit or global south lit in the profession. In the end, other humanities disciplines ended up where Philosophy hasn’t even begun to venture: credibility being tied up in the representation of diverse fields of study. You can’t have a credible History department with a single nation and tradition under study. Same for Literature. Same for Art History. Etc. Philosophy? Nope. In fact, the whole profession is completely built up on chauvinism and venomous exclusion.

          Leiter represents the FoxNews outlet of that chauvinism and venomous exclusion.

          I like the idea of generational change. “This next generation is different” is a truism for a reason: it’s often very true. But in Philosophy, this chauvinism and venomous exclusion functions as an ideology in Althusser’s sense: it pervades all aspects of professional life (from casual chatter to resource distribution to educational structures) and, like all ideologies embedded in a (in this case miniature) society, it functions to reproduce that society.

          That means something quite radical needs to be done in order to chart a different course. And that’s why I concluded the post the way I did. If there is to be another, different institution/profession, this one, as it is now, needs to be pulled up by its roots.

  6. I was trained at a PGR high-ranking philosophy department: UCLA. I’m not at all religious. I’m politically progressive. And, though I have a serious interest in continental philosophy, many of my methodological instincts owe their pedigree to analytic philosophy.

    I mention these things because they might incline you to believe I’d be a Leiter supporter. But I’m not: I think he’s a poisonous individual, and I hope his influence on the profession fades. You’re right that Leiter gives a voice to some real, dogmatic tendencies among philosophers. But though I have all of the qualities mentioned above, many of my friends (most of them ‘APA philosophers’) are: religious, politically conservative, and/or continental philosophers. They also despise Leiter, as do many folks who are like me in their personal and intellectual leanings.

    There are, sadly, also people who are non-religious, but also think that there’s nothing whatsoever to learn from religion; who are progressive, but also think that political conservatism is without any intellectual merit; and who are analytic philosophers, who think continental philosophy is just gobbledegook. These are the types that are most likely to be seduced by Leiter’s venom, because it flatters their self-conception. Many such people are perfectly smart, intellectually responsible folks who simply haven’t come across the right thinkers to have their views challenged. I’d like to see analytic philosophy, political progressivism, and secularism thrive; but I’d like to see them thrive with a healthy respect for the breadth of perspective there is in the profession. Leiter and his kind are simply never going to appeal to the better natures of folks who are flattered by their rhetoric.

    Don’t we have enough talking heads yelling at each other on cable TV news? Why do we let someone with rhetoric every bit as tendentious and masturbatory as Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow thrive in philosophy?

    • I think the answer to your last question is really complex (this is a group of humans, after all!), and of course that’s part of what I wanted to respond to in my post. I’d say this: philosophy is almost exclusively a group of white men and has been for its entire institutional history in the U.S. Large groups of white men have, well, how can I say this…a “spotty” track record when it comes to dealing with differences of all sorts (sexuality, race, class, gender). So, for me, I think it’s in part traceable back to the composition of the profession. It creates a culture, a society, and Althusser stated a plain and straightforward truth when he pointed out that the function of a society is to reproduce itself.

      You’re also right about flattery. Everybody loves a mirror that tells them they’re wonderful and invincible and amazing (narcissism is not an exotic affliction, but in fact completely comprehensible). Leiter has done that for years; one of the points in Catherine’s comments above, I think it’s fair to say, is that flattery and ambition have always been part of “ranking” departments (rather than, say, a love of scientific categorization and analysis). I’d say that goes to show just how hard it is to change hegemonic, cruel institutions: those in control have to look beyond the mirror Brian provides and think about basic human decency.

      It’s just that for me: basic human decency. The imperial character of “my interests” in philosophy is just freaky and weird. Other disciplines have massive differences in areas of study, but do without the imperialism. Those disciplines are concerned with true claims, genius, and what’s really real. They also have battles and prejudices, yet, in the end, credible History departments or English departments can’t simply do with one single national tradition and claim to be great, interesting, or even just plain responsible. That’s a Philosophy thing. The culture has sustained Brian, allowed him to flourish like few have, and now those who sustained him for two decades are…proposing to take over that mirror thing called the Gourmet Report? Therein lies my skepticism. I hope to be completely wrong and to witness a revolution of decency in the discipline. I’d love to post a “I was wrong to be so suspicious” thread in the future, for sure!

  7. John and I have been involved in a Facebook discussion, and he asked me to post the following comment here. So, for what it’s worth, I just want to chime in and say, in response to those that might think it is a benefit, that having pluralistic training is really no guarantee of anything, and is as much a boon as a curse (intellectually, certainly the former, but in other ways, the jury is still out). I can speak here directly from my own experience: I had a year on the market, where in the *same* year, literally in response to interviews days apart, I was told essentially that I wasn’t “analytic enough” for one department, while I was told that I was “too analytic” for another.

    The problems in philosophy are by now so bound up with the resentment and over-compensation that goes along with privilege and under-privilege that I think the problems are not based on any real conceptual distinctions but more on ingrained expressions of emotion and strong patterns of practice (with these last two reinforcing each other). The so-called analytic/continental distinction also serves as a means to excuse laziness (and we shouldn’t, I think, in this discussion overlook how lazy many philosophers are, relying often on notions of ‘brilliance’ and ‘smartness’ rather than ‘hard work’) by allowing people an excuse not to read large swaths of philosophy.

    All I know is that the PGR and the culture it fostered essentially made all of these tendencies as prevalent as they are now (if not outright created them), and capitulates in dangerous and sad ways to the worst excesses of the assault on the university by the corporate world. I also know that I personally find it incredibly frustrating, where there are classes of departments *and* journals (which are considered the ‘top’ ones) that essentially won’t glance twice on my materials–no matter how ‘clear’ they are–because they involve figures (and therefore ideas) in philosophy, that are to them entirely invisible, not even disliked or opposed, but simply unknown, so much so that even the barest context for understanding them is entirely absent (and absent, allegedly, for good reason). That, as John, rightly points out, does *not* occur in other fields and would be seen as obscene and intellectually bankrupt.

    I’ll conclude simply by nothing that I think we need to understand, above all, that the alleged “methods” of so called ‘continental’ and ‘analytic’ philosophy are essentially the same; indeed, the methods aren’t *that* different from non-fiction in other disciplines more generally. We read, we interpret, and we advance arguments, positions, ideas. What’s unique about philosophy is that it does so in response to other philosophers and philosophy (in this way, I often agree with Rorty that philosophy is just a set–a canon–of books and figures that we read and call philosophy). What’s so nefarious about what’s happened in the last half-century, but expressly in the last 20 years or so is that, by fiat, that canon–the list of who counts as falling into philosophy and who is worthy of being involved in a conversation–has been artificially closed (influenced by, but not wholly because of, broader trends in the precarious economic existence of the university), and thereby the voices of many have been robbed of expression in the field.

    And the field is poorer for it, as are our students, as is the world.

  8. LK McPherson

    “Leiter has done something very troubling, and I don’t mean just his racism and misogyny (not sure how else to characterize his venomous attacks on Alcoff and others).”

    Respectfully, this is too much–at least regarding the “racism” charge. What reason is there to believe that Leiter’s severe criticisms of Alcoff were motivated by animus toward her Latina-ness? Of course there are other ways to characterize the sources of his criticisms of her as a leader in the profession, among them: 1) her co-editorship of the Pluralist’s Guide, which everyone knows he detests; 2) her longstanding involvement with SPEP and SPEP-type philosophy, which everyone knows he detests.

    I’m not trying to defend or excuse those criticisms for their content or severity. (In general, I don’t understand the severity of a lot of his criticisms that target persons in and around the profession. I’ve never met or talked with him.) Nor am I presuming a need to meet some extraordinary burden of proof before leveling a charge of racism. I just don’t get it in this case.

    Moreover, there’s good evidence that Leiter is not a racist–even though he has had a heavily Anglo-American conception of philosophy (his specialization in Nietzsche aside). But in recent years, he’s clearly become concerned about gender and race issues in the profession. Let me get to the evidence.

    Leiter was the first high-profile person in the profession to reach out and ask about my experiences as a Black philosopher. (He was prompted by some of my online comments as perhaps indicative of broader, disturbing phenomena.) He posted my fairly damning response on Leiter Reports. Then, after the expected skeptical, dismissive, and condescending comments on that post, he posted again after asking whether I’d like to share any details to back up my claims–which, sadly, was easy to do:


    I’m taking no position on the current battle over Leiter’s continued role in editing the PGR–apart from favoring its suspension for this year. As always, all I can do is speak my conscience, which I realize risks the possibility of error or offense.

    –LK McPherson

    • Thanks for this comment and the challenges it poses. I really mean that. I’m glad you posted.

      While I agree that identifying Leiter’s racism pushes things a bit – his misogyny is pretty evident at this point, beyond much dispute – I think it’s a fair claim. Leiter’s animosity and intensity re: Alcoff’s position at the APA was really unprecedented. And when I see that kind of intensity, I wonder what could be triggering it. After all, it’s not like Linda advocated anything radical, world-altering, etc. She simply assumed an executive position at the Association and played out her term. Yet, Brian went nuts and engaged in what can safely be called a character assassination campaign (the FoxNewsification of the profession….best example, along with the Critchley one). The Alcoff case makes me look more broadly and piece together a picture. I think that picture is a bleak one for Brian (and the profession more widely).

      Those pieces include the systematic judgment of non-white philosophy as not worthy of serious consideration in the PGR stuff. Appendices and the failure to look outside departments of philosophy (i.e., looking at area studies) are not enough and are insulting, if you ask me. The PGR is conceived to reproduce white philosophical traditions by providing pseudo-objective reports on what is real and good, which, in turn, lend all sorts of leverage to administrations in eliminating, reducing, or reshaping philosophy departments. His recent post (linked in my original post) equates diversification initiatives with the worst neoliberalism, pathologized students of color, and his implication that the white tradition is what it is and students need to deal – that was just a bit too colonial for my eyes. (I’d written a blog on this issue, but posted this one instead after the PGR debate took off.) I think the picture of him I piece together makes sense.

      I also don’t think it’s incompatible with personal behavior and professional interventions that go contrary. Your situation – that is genuinely horrifying, while at the same time not entirely surprising (wtf is wrong with people?). A lot of people have come out with stories of how Leiter is supportive and good and generous in person, a version of which is in Cathy’s remark above. The cynic would say that Brian acts out of a kind of self-interest: defending Salaita is akin to defending himself against action against offensive internet presence, supporting students around him in order to help the rep of his department and those around him, and generally he is a supporter of decent professional policy (violations of which yours in a particularly awful example). For what it’s worth, I share all of those values and think they are good, defensible, and totally necessary values. I’m glad that Brian is a better person in person to those he cares about.

      Of course, his online behavior has consequences for people in person too (we are flesh and blood, not just e-names), because his vitriol and the chauvinism of his “rankings” change the lives of those on the receiving end of what he says. Legal threats (I would probably get a libel threat from him, were he not preoccupied with other folks these days), etc., are real. The chauvinism of the PGR and his deriding of all other approaches to evaluating graduate programs is real. His self-assigned authority on feminist and non-white philosophy does real damage and needs to be called out (he hasn’t read any of this stuff seriously, so his motivation for such dismissiveness is transparent, if you ask me).

      All of this is to say, I stand by my characterization and feel like it draws on a whole range of Leiter statements and online behaviors. While I am glad to know that in person he is sometimes different, I’d also want to keep alive the notion that his online antics have very serious in person consequences, so that line is hard to maintain in this day and age.

      I doubt we’ll agree on this, but your reply was a real reply and challenge, so forgive my long response. Even if it doesn’t generate agreement, I’m hoping it shows a serious response to your comment. A very necessary comment.

  9. As a reward for daring to write a blog post on a subject about which he apparently has nothing insightful to say (recent and contemporary French post-structuralism) I was personally “ranked” by Professor Leiter at a very low level indeed: http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2014/10/07/controversial-american-professor-tests-new-global-ranking-system-on-french-citizen/.

    I wrote a reply in the form of an open letter as I feel that monologues should be contested and resisted: http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2014/10/06/open-letter-to-brian-leiter-from-one-just-a-guy-with-a-blog-to-another/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *